Boosting Student Engagement Through Meaningful Science Literacy Experiences

My Confession

I have a confession to make…I am a literacy nerd.  I have another confession to make…I used to despise most things involving literacy. You may be wondering how someone who now lives and breathes all things literacy once felt that way. As I reflect on the evolution of my learning journey (grade school-present), I can clearly recognize the possibilities that caused these feelings to transpire. One of these reasons is that I felt trapped in traditional learning environments that celebrated the consumption of information instead of embracing meaningful and relevant learning experiences that were applicable to the real world. Of course, there were some outstanding exceptions, but for the most part, conventional practices stifled me. Visually, it was suffocating too. You should have seen the inside of my desk; it was overcrowded and stacked to the brim with the entire curriculum. Heavy, outdated, and in some cases, obsolete textbooks in every subject area (social studies, math, science, reading, and the list goes on) devoured my day. Learning mostly felt like a task, a burden, a mental weight that smothered me. Acquiring content knowledge across various subject areas was heavily focused on memorizing countless facts, regurgitating them orally, in my notebook, and/or on an assessment, only to completely forget that information, and its purpose a day or two later. And even as a child, I can recollect that learning just didn’t always feel fun, it didn’t always feel useful, and at times, it certainly didn’t feel worthwhile. Don’t get me wrong, I do not feel there was any ill intent to sabotage my growth and development as a learner. At that time, perhaps teaching and learning practices were not as focused on capitalizing on curiosity, wonder, honoring students’ passions and interests, and keeping learners at the heart of all decision making.

Discovering The Curious Classroom

When I became an educator, I didn’t want my previous feelings about literacy to reflect the way I approached teaching and learning practices for students and colleagues. It has always been my mission to create cross-curricular, learner-driven spaces that foster student agency, value student choice, and voice while empowering students to view themselves as key drivers of their own learning. With that being said, a few years ago, a colleague recommended the book The Curious Classroom: 10 Structures for Teaching with Student-Directed Inquiry by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels. Not too long after this book discovery, I attended his conference where Daniels charismatically and passionately brought the authentic ideas in his book to life! I was instantly captivated by his realistic, motivating, and engaging approaches to inquiry-based learning that could make an immediate impact on students’ social, emotional, and academic potential. He suggests several ways to implement accessible structures that are not meant to replace existing practices but transform them in responsive classroom environments. I was especially intrigued by the innovative ways to build curiosity for curricular subjects that may not immediately influence learners. 

Taking a Science Literacy Journey with 3rd Grade Classes

Promptly, I joined forces with a few classroom teachers to explore and experiment with practical, exciting ideas to motivate students during their science literacy blocks. Some of the strategies we implemented were suggestions presented in the book The Curious Classroom. One of the reasons we embarked on this experience was to build the curiosity for curricular subjects in exciting and motivating ways. Another reason was to honor and utilize the students’ questions to drive the learning for science topics. Although these particular learning experiences were done with 3rd-grade classes on the topic of Forces and Motion, it is important to note that this learning can easily be translated to any grade level or subject area.

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Grounding the Work 

When embarking on this experience, it was important to ground the work in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) because more than ever before, science education is central to our lives. Science literacy is critical to making sense of complex topics that affect our world. Science is at the heart of designing, innovating, and creating jobs for the future. Read here for more information on why Science Standards matter.

Through a collaborative, state-led process, new K-12 science standards have been developed that are rich in both content and practice, and arranged in a coherent manner across disciplines and grades to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education. The NGSS were released in 2013 and are being implemented in states and districts across the nation. -NGSS

Ideas for Sparking Curiosity and Boosting Student Engagement

Drawing: If you are looking for a way to have students remember something, then have them draw it!  According to the article The Science of Drawing and Memory, researchers have found that drawing helps a person process information by using multiple pathways (visual, semantic, and kinesthetic). This is a powerful way to double the recall of information and boost memory. Before you begin investigating a science topic, search for a video that introduces the concept. After students watch the video, have them draw what they learned from the experience. I have found that learners enjoy getting to show their thinking through pictures. For some, it builds their confidence instead of having to show their learning/thinking in more traditional ways. Repeat this throughout the learning process. You can also have the students view the video in the middle and end of a topic as a way to assess what they have learned. You may notice that the learners are adding more tier 3 vocabulary, details to their drawings, and are highlighting more complex concepts. Use this information to drive your next teaching moves!

Video We Used

Students’ Drawings/Learning

Drawing 1            Drawing 2

Drawing 3      Drawing 4

Phenomena: For a scientist, phenomena is an observable event (i.e. a fall/autumn day, slip/fall, organisms eating, seasonal patterns). By using phenomena, students are motivated to explain the topic, and the focus of learning shifts from learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens. The focus is not just on the phenomenon itself. It is the phenomenon plus the student-generated questions about the phenomenon that guides the learning and teaching. The practice of asking questions or identifying problems becomes a critical part of trying to figure something out. Utilize phenomena and a “See, Think, Wonder” template, at the beginning, middle, and end of a unit to see how the learning has progressed.

Links to Phenomena We Used

Find more NGSS phenomena here

Students’ See, Think, Wonder Templates

See 1see 2

Dialogue Journals: This is a fantastic way to get students to informally write about any topic with a partner or group while developing relationships and building stronger connections with teachers and peers. Learners will start with a question, comment, or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. Learners respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going.  Dialogue journals are a low pressure way for students to develop writing fluency, stamina, and confidence. Teachers can participate by giving feedback to the learners and/or participate in the writing process.

Dialogue Journals

Rules for Dialogue Journals

Dialogue Journal information from: The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers…K-12 by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels  and Elaine Daniels

Students’ Dialogue Journals

Dialogue Journals 1Dialogue Journals 2

Some Final Thoughts/Observations

All of the learning experiences I shared were received extremely well among all of the students who participated in them.  I observed every student actively and willingly participating, sharing, and whole-heartedly engaged. Many were even empowered to explore various topics further through their own inquiry process because of the motivation these activities provided in safe, fun learning environments that embraced a learner-centered philosophy. Although we are still uncertain about what our learning spaces will look like and feel like in September, what I do know is that all of these learning suggestions are possible in both physical or remote learning environments. No matter where we are, we will always work hard towards meeting students where they are AND give students exactly what they need to thrive as learners. ALWAYS.

 

Harvey Daniels

Unlocking Significant Moments in Time

Manifesting Significant Moments

Have you ever experienced significant moments in time that have transformed your perspectives and altered the path you were walking on?  These significant moments often engender a multitude of feelings and encourage us to make choices that impact the direction we choose to take. These are the moments that are difficult to see in real-time because you are so consumed with the experience itself. These are the moments that unlock our potential and catapult us to stand in our power and continuously evolve.  Very often these moments are revealed with the various people we encounter throughout our lives. And whether these interactions are perceived to be productive or unfavorable, they empower us to reflect on who we are, who we want to be, and expose our true purpose in life.  

Getting Personal and Authentic

As I read Thomas C. Murray’s book, Personal and Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences That Impact a Lifetime, I was immediately captivated by the first chapter where he passionately states, “A life-changing moment happens in a blink. It’s that moment where faith overcomes fear.  It’s the first step towards a new reality, a step that permanently alters your dreams and changes the way you think about your life-forever.” Tom shared a powerful personal story in Chapter 1 of his book and most recently on the George Couros Innovator’s Mindset podcast: Personal & Authentic During Coronavirus- A convo with Tom Murray about how his relationship with his mentor shaped the legacy he would want to leave with his students and colleagues. It was his mentor who created compelling significant moments that were focused on the quality of relationships, leading with empathy, and loving and caring about kids. It was his mentor who supported him and helped him understand that although being an educator is hard work, it is crucial to have patience throughout the journey and own the experience. It was this mentor/mentee relationship that influenced the educator he was going to be and helped define and create his path to success.  It is because of this relationship that Tom has been able to unlock the potential in others and inspire educators around the world with dynamic, influential stories from within.

The Spark that Ignites a Fire 

The stories in the book Personal and Authentic encouraged me to think a lot about the relationship I had with my own mentor when I was just a brand new teacher at P.S. 65, in Ozone Park, Queens.  My mentor was one of the people who helped me step toward a new reality and pushed me to manifest my own dreams. And, although it is sometimes hard to recall every detail about our significant moments together; I am certain that she created a spark that still ignites a fire in my relentless spirit. It is because of my positive experience with my own mentor, that makes the pairing of Mentors and Mentees in my own school district so important and special. These significant relationships are built on trust, hope, and promise; the promise to provide opportunities that will empower the next generation of teachers leaders to thrive.  It has been wonderful to observe the evolution and strength of these partnerships. For this reason, I am happy to highlight my experience with MY mentor and a few of the Mentors and Mentees in the Long Beach Public School’s Mentor Program. They were happy to share some of their significant moments together!

Barbara                                 laurenpicture2

Barbara Herman (Mentor)         Lauren Kaufman (Mentee)

As I began working with Lauren I soon realized that she was a natural for the teaching profession. She was not only bright, but compassionate, organized, willing to learn, and accepting of advice, as well as, (I hope) constructive criticism. I loved the way she spoke with her students, making each one feel special. You could see them glow after a conversation, even if she was correcting a behavior. Lauren also developed a great rapport with her colleagues. She was my first mentee after many, many years in the classroom. As the relationship grew we both benefitted. I imparted to Lauren what I had learned throughout my career and Lauren brought to me a fresh perspective and enthusiasm. I suppose you could say this is collaboration at its best. This is what the mentor/mentee program is all about. -Barbara

When I was a first-year teacher, Barbara gave me the confidence I craved as I journeyed through my first year teaching successes, challenges, and failures. Some of the qualities that Barbara possessed were her genuine kindness, patience, and content knowledge.  She was extremely approachable and gave me the confidence and advice I needed to navigate relationships, protocols, and teaching and learning practices. One day, I vividly remember standing in front of the overhead projector (remember those?) “ready” to teach a writing lesson. After all, I had it written in my planbook, the learning objective was clearly written on a sentence strip, and was posted on the chalkboard, “Students will be able to write a good beginning of their story by hooking the reader.” I looked around the room, stated the learning objective (that’s what we called it at the time), and then…I completely froze.  My inner voice said, “I know how to write, but how do I TEACH writing?” I pretended to look completely cool; I turned off the overhead projector and called Barbara.  I whispered into the phone, “Barbara, how do you teach writing?” She laughed in the most supportive way possible, “I’ll be right there, don’t worry!” she responded. –Lauren

Long Beach Public Schools Mentor/Mentee Relationships

Stacey                                    Christina

Stacey Mason (Mentor)                  Christina Gardrvits (Mentee)

Being a teacher is one of the most rewarding careers to have, but helping other teachers hone their craft and improve their practice is almost equally as rewarding. Signing up to be a mentor for the third time was a little daunting because my two previous experiences were picture-perfect; both of my former mentees are very close friends of mine to this day! As soon as I was paired with Christina, I knew that this time would be no different. She is an eager and motivated sponge, soaking up all there is to learn and know about teaching middle school while navigating the challenges of being a permanent substitute teacher. This includes following other teachers’ lesson plans and procedures, while still making the classroom environment her own each time she walks into a new classroom. This is not an easy task and in many ways, is way more difficult than being a typical first-year teacher! Her drive and desire to grow professionally is evident. This is all while she takes on new challenges, commitments, and certifications! She also volunteers her time and shares her expertise around the building… and still, she (somehow!) finds time to be an amazing mom to two young daughters. On top of all of that, she has become my friend and one that I know will become lifelong, just like my other two mentees. Three for three!! I am so proud of all that Christina has accomplished so far and can’t wait to see what her professional future holds! -Stacey

Most of us can think back and remember a teacher who made a difference in their lives.  You don’t remember exactly what they taught you but how they made you feel.  That is exactly how I would describe my experience this year having Stacey as my mentor. On my first day, I came into the classroom that I was teaching in and found a gift bag from her waiting on the desk filled with fancy post its, a beautiful notebook, and other teacher essentials with a card that couldn’t be more encouraging. The part that was even more important to mention was that I am a permanent substitute in the building so she had to track down which teacher I would be covering for. That is just one example of what I have learned from her this year. She made me feel like I mattered, that she cared and that’s exactly how she makes her students feel.  

The support and encouragement that Stacey has given me are what I will carry over to my students one day. I want them to feel that they matter, that I am rooting for them, and I have their back. I have learned that relationships are the backbone of the school community; if you can establish them from the beginning, then learning comes naturally.  With our mentor coordinator, Lauren, creating such a strong bond with all of the mentors/mentees, we always know that we never have to do it alone! I really feel like I found my fellow educator soulmate.  I couldn’t have asked or needed a better person.  She doesn’t preach her expertise but instead gives me the confidence to try myself and is there when I need her.  We need to model the behavior we want to see in our students and I have been lucky enough to be one of her ‘students.’  It doesn’t hurt either that she is also an extremely talented reading teacher! -Christina

Brianna                            Ashley

Brianna Carnevale (Mentor)               Ashley Garry  (Mentee)

As the committee prepared for another round of interviews, Ashley Garry entered the room beaming with passion, enthusiasm, and a high level of professionalism. As she spoke about her teaching experiences and her expertise in the field of ENL, I remember thinking WOW!! Long Beach High School would be the perfect home for Ashley. Since day one, being Ashley’s mentor has been such a rewarding experience because of the bond that we share. Not only do we get to plan lessons together and engage in professional learning opportunities like presenting, but I truly consider Ashley to be a lifelong friend. She has helped me to grow so much by bringing in new ideas with technology and innovative teaching practices that would never have crossed my mind without our dedication to working as a team. I value her strong work ethic and how compassionate she is when working with our ENL students.  We build each other up and support one another each day; even during the most stressful times. We laugh together, we vent together, we call each other; but more importantly, we have taken on a journey that I am forever grateful for. -Brianna

The first day I walked into Long Beach High School for my interview, I felt a sense of belonging. There was something about the culture and climate of the school, the friendly faces, and the warm welcome from anyone I passed. The first person I spoke to was Brianna Carnevale, as she and I were both early (no surprise there). Brianna’s enthusiasm and love for LBHS shone through her bright personality; her confidence and professionalism was something I truly admired. Fast forward to the days before school, where we spent time on the phone, exchanging emails, and lesson planning, sometimes by the beach. I felt confident and secure knowing that my journey at Long Beach would be an incredible one, having Brianna supporting me from day one. Brianna has not only been a phenomenal mentor, but she has truly become one of my lifelong friends. She pushes me to do my best work, day in and day out and is always there for me, whether it’s been the best day or a hard one. I can’t imagine my journey without her and am forever grateful for her knowledge and friendship. -Ashley

Arlyne                                Nicolette

Arlyne Skolnik (Mentor)              Nicolette Samardich (Mentee)

I wondered and hoped as I awaited meeting my mentee. Would she be receptive to support? Flexible? Enthusiastic? A team player?  Now that I’ve had the pleasure of working with Nicolette over the past year, she is all of those things and more. Nicolette is the full package! Spending time with my mentee continues to be a very rewarding experience and especially in our “new normal” world; we are each other’s support with all the new challenges that COVID-19 has presented to us as educators. I love that she’s enthusiastic to try anything new to engage her young first-grade distance learners. I adore that she explores every avenue and leaves no stone unturned. I also love when our roles switch and Nicolette mentors me when I have a technological glitch! Like a spring flower, Nicolette continues to blossom into a truly fine, caring teacher. She is among our newest shining stars at West School!  We are so fortunate to have her and I am proud to call her my colleague! -Arlyne

As I approach the end of my first year, I think back to how much my Mentor meant to me. At first, I thought: A reading teacher and a classroom teacher? How will she be able to answer all the questions I have?  Boy was I wrong. Arlyne is a wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and positive energy. She knows the answers to everything I have asked, and if she didn’t, she always pointed me in the direction of someone who would. Arlyne is so cordial and helped me to feel comfortable the day I walked into school. She gave me the confidence and support each and every day to help drive my relationships with colleagues, students, and families. She consistently supports my growth as an educator by sharing new practices, resources, and applications with me. Arlyne pushes me on a daily basis to be the best teacher I can be and constantly applauds my achievements. Best of all, each morning she walks by my classroom, pops her head in with a bright smile, and says good morning; always starting my day off on a happy note. -Nicolette

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